Monday, September 27, 2010


It's the last Sunday morning in September. I'm on the 35 bus, with the map wrinkling in my sweaty hands. The red squiggles are the streets of Norwich, on one of which I'm supposed to find the church. I check my watch, again. 10:20. Hurry up hurry up hurry up hurry up...

I'd walked tentatively into the Chaplain's Office at the university on Friday afternoon, finished with my first week of classes in England. A round-cheeked man, kind, blustery -- the chaplain himself, I discovered -- seemed delighted and a bit taken aback to have an American poke her head into the empty room to ask if she could join for evening prayers, which had been advertised on the wall outside the door. Soon the Catholic chaplain joined us, a woman with graying hair and a cardigan, and I answered their questions as they flitted from one topic to the next. (Where was I from? What was my denomination? Would I be interested in helping to organize a Thanksgiving dinner in November?) When the clock hit six, silence settled, and the three of us bowed our heads in the tiny lamp-lit office as the sun slid out of reach. A cool rush of something like comfort swayed my bones. God had followed me across the ocean.

But now I'm going to be late, going to be late to the church the chaplain told me to find, Chapelfield Road Methodist. I still don't know the bus routes well, so I hop off at the Roman Catholic cathedral, ancient gray stones overwhelming me higher and higher. Where to go from here? 10:30.

The stark chilly sunshine drops onto my unsure footsteps, and I clip quickly down the sidewalks trying not to look lost. But let's face it --
10:35. My muscles tighten. Service starting and I'm not there. So I do a little praying on my own, mutters and lip bites.

"Lord. Seriously. Let me find the church.

"Not kidding."

10:37. I want to go to church. I want to go to church! Cars whiz past me (wrong side of the street! Wrong side!), past the ancient city walls that still stand, crumbling seashell rocks stacked and scattered. I can't see far enough down the street to know what's next. Am I even going in the right direction?

"Help me find the church, help me find the church, please God, I --"

I give. "Excuse me!" I call brightly to an older man ambling in front of me. He stops, checks himself at my voice. I'm extremely aware of who I am. Yes, American. Yes, woman. Yes, lost. "Can you tell me where Chapelfield Road Methodist is?"

He puts up his hand to shield his eyes from the sunlight. "Eh, Chapelfield? Think you jus' keep headin' down this way, should run straigh' inno it."

"Down this way?"

"Yeh, think --"

"Thank you!" I'm already jogging.

There it is! There it is! Right across the street from Chapelfield Mall and city centre. No steeple, just straight-edged stately stone with a pointed roof and a curved window in the middle that looks like it's been etched with whalebone. I pause in the parking lot, take a breath. 10:40.

Thank you.

I drag the heavy door open and slip in, holding it with my palm until it clicks shut. My ears are suddenly stuffed full of sound, the sounds of my childhood, deep organ swells and a musty copper richness of mingled voices.

"Bri-ing forth the ro-o-yal di-i-a-de-em --"

Hey, I know this one!

I tiptoe into the narthex, getting curious smiles from the gray-haired ushers. I smile back, yes apologetic, yes new, yes late. One of the ushers opens the door to the small sanctuary and I slip inside.

" -- and cro-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-wn Him, crown Him, crown Him, and cro-o-o-wn Him Lord of All!"

There's a space at the end of the second row from the back, and I drop my bag at my feet and grab a hymnal -- small, navy blue, old-fashioned gold lettering -- searching for the page.

Where's the page where's the page where's the page where --

I feel the book being tugged out of my hands (hey, wait!) and replaced gently with another hymnal, already open to the page. The old man next to me now holds my closed book, and cracks a sideways smile my way. I beam, lifting my American voice to sing with all the rest, thousands of miles from where I first sang this hymn, where I first learned about God.

And somehow, in some part of my heart that is already so overwhelmed with new new new, I find myself thinking --

Maybe God didn't simply follow me across the ocean. Maybe God was also across the ocean, waiting for me to arrive.

(I wrote this for Davidson's Availing, the annual literary magazine sponsored by the Chaplain's Office. 2 years ago tomorrow, I first found Chapelfield.)

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